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What Ulster looked like 1,000,000 years ago

Millions of years of archaeology is laid bare in a new BBC1 series starting tonight. Presenter William Crawley reports

Published 31/03/2008

At primary school, my teacher came up with a terrific class project. We had to find out all we could about our favourite extinct animals. These were pre-Wikipedia days! Some chose the Dodo, some the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

I chose the woolly mammoth — a shaggy-coated Ice Age wanderer that lived in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago. I worked out the woolly mammoth was a giant of an animal — 12 feet tall at the shoulders weighing about seven tons. It never occurred to me, from the vantage point of my primary school in north Belfast, that this Ice Age giant once roamed the landscape that would eventually become Northern Ireland

Some months ago, I spent the day at Aughnadarragh Lough, near Crumlin. In 1986, geologists drilling for a new seam of lignite there made a remarkable find — an enormous tooth. It belonged to a woolly mammoth that lived in the Lough Neagh area thousands of years ago. I held the actual tooth in my hands — courtesy of the Ulster Museum in Belfast — and we filmed a sequence on location at the site of the discovery for Blueprint, our new natural history series.

My school friends working on the T-Rex would have been equally amazed to discover this fearsome dinosaur probably once roared on the north coast of Northern Ireland. I've returned to sites of dinosaur finds, not far from Portrush, which suggest the north coast was our very own Jurassic Park.

I've also stood on a rock on Valencia Island, off the coast of county Kerry, which contains the oldest intact footprints in the entire world. They are 385 million years old and mark the moment when primitive marine reptiles walked on the land. Signs on the island these days mark the 'Tetrapod trackway', but most visitors don't appreciate just how significant these tracks are. Hopefully, our Blueprint series will bring this scientific find to a much larger audience.

Blueprint is full of those discoveries — unexpected revelations that will change the way we see our landscape forever.

I have worked on ambitious broadcasting projects before , but none come close to the ambition driving this one. Blueprint attempts to tell the story of 600 million years of Northern Ireland's natural history. Sounds simple? But to do the story justice we have had to piece together its various elements, drawing on the expertise of some of Ireland's leading scientists and historians, before working out how to translate the final narrative of our past into three hours of television.

We try to answer lots of questions. How and when did Ireland become an island? How did the Ice Age shape and colour the land we know? What happened to the Irish Elk, the Irish Wolfhound, the Brown Bears that once made their home here? And how have people left their mark forever on the landscape of this island?

I spent much of last year filming about 150 pieces-to-camera in a variety of locations. Stunning special effects interact with many of those landscapes to bring the past to life. And two scientific experts, Peter Woodman and Emily Murray, peel back more of the story and explain how scientists are working to tell us more about our past.

Our production meetings were interesting as we argued about what had to be included, which locations were essential, and which historical episodes were central or peripheral to the big picture. Our panel of experts — geologists, archaeologists, geneticists, historians, and others — consulted on every line of the developing script.

We got close to 30 drafts before we filmed anything. Finding the right language to make the story accessible was also important.

Beyond the three TV programmes at the centre of the Blueprint season, Blueprint unites TV, radio and the internet in the most ambitious multi-platform project we've ever attempted. In three follow-up TV programmes, Darryl Grimason explores many of the extraordinary locations we examine in Blueprint. On BBC Radio Ulster, Caroline Nolan climbs inside some of the locations featured in the series. Then, on the internet, we are launching an interactive website which we hope will be a major contribution to the public's understanding of the world around us.

What's our hope for this season of programmes? We're aiming high. Northern Ireland will never look the same again.

Blueprint, BBC One NI, tonight, 9pm; Blueprint: Off The Beaten Track, BBC One NI, Wednesday, 10.40pm; Blueprint, BBC Radio Ulster, Saturday, April 5, 11.30am, repeated Sundays at 2.30pm; or visit

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